By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 2010; D01
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- By now, it is apparent the talent level of the hitters he is facing matters very little to Stephen Strasburg. The collegians and Olympians of years past, of course, stood little chance. The top prospects he faced in Class AA last month rarely were any match for the Washington Nationals' 21-year-old phenom.
And on Friday night, in Strasburg's debut for the Class AAA Syracuse Chiefs, the collection of borderline big leaguers and experienced farmhands in the Gwinnett Braves' lineup might as well have been schoolkids or beer league softballers, so helpless were they in stopping the Strasburg Express on its trip towards Washington.
On a chilly night in upstate New York, Strasburg tossed six dazzling innings for the Chiefs, allowing just two base runners -- on a single on a soft grounder up the middle in the fourth and a six-pitch walk in the fifth -- while striking out six in a 65-pitch gem. The groundball single by Gregor Blanco, in fact, was the only ball that left the infield against him, as Strasburg's two-seamed sinking fastball coaxed 12 groundouts.
To top off his performance, Strasburg also collected two RBI -- he is hitting .375 with four RBI in 10 plate appearances this season -- in leading the Chiefs to a 7-0 victory in front of an enthralled, sellout crowd at Alliance Bank Stadium.
This was supposed to have been the most advanced level of hitter Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick of the June 2009 draft, had yet to encounter, as the Braves' lineup featured four players with big league experience and no one under the age of 25.
But those hitters fared no better against Strasburg's advanced arsenal -- he featured a fastball that reached as high as 99 mph and his usual knee-buckling curve, all of it thrown with nearly impeccable command -- than the ones he dispatched in five starts with Class AA Harrisburg.
"You can't worry about the caliber of the hitters you're facing," said Strasburg, who is expected to make five or six starts in Syracuse before arriving in Washington in early June. "Good pitching should get good hitters out, bottom line."
The victory improved Strasburg's record to 4-1 and lowered his ERA to 1.29 in six starts across two minor league levels. He has struck out 33 batters while walking only seven.
Strasburg's arrival in Syracuse was greeted as something just slightly less exalted than that of a messiah. The Chiefs' public relations department issued some 30 media credentials -- or about five times a normal game night -- and the overflow crowd of 13,766 was the largest recorded in the 135-year history of baseball in Syracuse.
By 5:30 p.m., when the gates opened, the line of fans waiting to get in snaked halfway around the stadium. A little after 6:30 p.m., as Strasburg emerged from the Chiefs' clubhouse to begin his ritualized warmup routine, hundreds of fans were pressed together near the bullpen to catch an up-close glimpse.
Throwing to a catcher, Carlos Maldonado, who had never caught him before, Strasburg's let loose his first pitch, a 96-mph strike, at 7:10 p.m. to a chorus of gasps and oohs. He used a pair of 99-mph fastballs, his hardest of the night, to set up a devastating curve that froze Blanco for Strasburg's first strikeout of the night.
"He was amazing," marveled Maldonado. "I'm just glad he was on my side."
But Strasburg soon switched from his riding four-seamer to his sinking two-seamer, inducing grounders and collecting quick outs. The second and third innings featured three groundouts apiece, and the game could have been Strasburg's second no-hit outing of the season had Chiefs shortstop Eric Bruntlett shown a little more range on Blanco's fourth-inning grounder up the middle, which barely snuck under his glove.
"He definitely has big league stuff," said Braves third baseman Joe Thurston, who spent all of 2009 in the big leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals. "But I didn't see anything to where I'd say, 'Get him out of here. He doesn't belong in this league.' Nobody on our team was awed by him. We all went up there with the attitude of, 'This guy is in Triple-A, just like us, so let's go.' "
Perhaps the biggest revelation regarding Strasburg this season has been his prowess at the plate. Barred from hitting at San Diego State by the designated hitter rule -- and the ability of Coach Tony Gwynn to resist Strasburg's repeated entreaties to take a few cuts -- he had almost no hitting experience since high school.
But on Friday night, he lined an RBI single in his first plate appearances and collected another RBI with a sacrifice bunt on a safety squeeze.
When Strasburg, with two outs in the top of the sixth, went to a full-count to Blanco, the crowd rose to its feet, recognizing it as the phenom's final batter. Blanco gamely fouled off a 95-mph fastball, but stood by helplessly as Strasburg unleashed an 81-mph curve.
It was strike three. Strasburg bounded off the mound. And Syracuse, like San Diego and Viera and Harrisburg before it, now understood what all the fuss was about.